Smaller films/strike may spur smaller audience

Folks in Hollywood are rallying behind Sunday’s Oscarcast with renewed passion after prolonged fears about its strike-stricken fate.

But will the film biz’s fervor extend to the rest of the world’s TV viewers?

Each year, U.S. viewership of the Academy Awards rises and falls depending on the films in contention. This year, Oscar’s big hopes may rest on a pregnant 16-year-old.

Over the years, the Academy Awards telecast has proved to be a durable ratings performer — second only to the Super Bowl among annual events.

Last year’s kudocast, in which Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” was crowned best pic, averaged 40.17 million viewers, up from the previous year (38.94 million), in which “Crash” was the big winner. The 2007 Oscarcast was the 2006-07 TV season’s most-watched entertainment telecast, outdrawing even the highest-rated episodes of “American Idol.”

But a ceremony whose top nominees will be “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” is a far cry from the 1998 Oscarcast, when the “Titanic” phenomenon reeled in more than 55 million TV viewers.

This time out, the top-grossing best-pic contender is Fox Searchlight’s “Juno,” which has a worldwide cume of $134 million — a tidy sum for a little indie, but not exactly in the same league as “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (which sports two noms and a B.O. gross of nearly $1 billion).

This year, Academy voters bypassed the chance to nominate such stars as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but the Acad and producer Gil Cates have smartly ratcheted up the star quotient with its presenters.

There are movie stars such as George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman and Denzel Washington, plus the movie stars familiar to TV viewers: Steve Carell, Patrick Dempsey, Katherine Heigl and, of course, Miley Cyrus.

Last year marked the 18th time in the last 20 years that the Oscars drew more than 40 million. But over the years, the kudocast’s share of the national viewing audience has shrunk noticeably as alternative viewing options have vastly increased.

Last year’s show, for example, averaged a 37 share of the viewing public that night; 10 years earlier, the show had earned a 46 share.

The show tends to draw its largest audiences when a popular film dominates the major awards. The largest aud of the past 30 years came in 1998, when “Titanic” sailed to victory before a whopping 55.25 million viewers; the biggest crowd in the last five years came in 2004, when 43.53 million viewers watched the coronation of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Conversely, the smallest Oscar audience on record (33.04 million) was in 2003, a year when a musical, “Chicago,” topped a field that included lightly watched films including “Gangs of New York” and “The Hours.”

That year was also the last held in the Academy Awards’ traditional early-spring window, with the show shifting from late March to late February beginning in 2004. Move was made in part to maximize viewership, as February is consistently the most-watched month of the calendar year.

If the late-March date was still in place, this year’s show would take place during the early weeks of daylight-saving time, the onset of which keeps even more viewers away from their television sets.

Once again this year, the competition is ceding the night to ABC. Fox is airing repeats of its animated comedies “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” while NBC is running four repeats of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” CBS is offering the only firstrun programming among the major nets, 8 o’clock reality show “Big Brother.”

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